Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has recruited Afghan immigrant children living in Iran to fight in Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. Afghan children as young as 14 have fought in the Fatemiyoun division, an exclusively Afghan armed group supported by Iran that fights alongside government forces in the Syrian conflict. Under international law, recruiting children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities is a war crime.
Human Rights Watch researchers reviewed photographs of tombstones in Iranian cemeteries where the authorities buried combatants killed in Syria, and identified eight Afghan children who apparently fought and died in Syria. Iranian media reports also corroborated some of these cases and reported at least six more instances of Afghan child soldiers who died in Syria. For two of the reported cases, researchers reviewed photographs of tombstones that indicated the individual was over the age of 18, but family members of these deceased fighters told Iranian media that they were children who had misrepresented their age in order to join the Fatemiyoun division. This indicates that instances of Iran recruiting children to fight in Syria are likely more prevalent.
“Iran should immediately end the recruitment of child soldiers and bring back any Afghan children it has sent to fight in Syria,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than preying on vulnerable immigrant and refugee children, the Iranian authorities should protect all children and hold those responsible for recruiting Afghan children to account.”
In 2015, the Interior Ministry estimated that there were 2.5 million Afghans in Iran, many of them without residency papers. Human Rights Watch previously documented cases of Afghan refugees in Iran who “volunteered” to fight in Syria in the hopes of gaining legal status for their families.
Since 2013, Iran has supported and trained thousands of Afghans, at least some of them undocumented immigrants, as part of the Fatemiyoun division, a group that an Iranian newspaper close to the government describes as volunteer Afghan forces, to fight in Syria. In May 2015, Defa Press, a news agency close to Iran’s armed forces, reported that the Fatemiyoun had been elevated from a brigade to a division. There are no official public statistics on its size, but according to an interview published in the Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Tasnim News, it has about 14,000 fighters.
By reviewing photographs of their tombstones, Human Rights Watch documented eight Afghan children who fought and died in Syria. Five of them, one as young as 14, are buried in the Martyr’s Section of Tehran’s Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery. Writing on the epitaphs of the tombstones indicates that they were all probably killed in combat in Syria and that all of them were below the age of 18 at the time of their deaths. Human Rights Watch was able to document three more cases, of a 17-year-old, a 15-year-old, and another 17-year-old, who were buried in Alborz, Tehran, and Isfahan provinces, respectively.
In four of these cases, the tombstones also identified the children’s places of death in Syria, and in seven of the eight cases, the tombstones described the Afghan child as a “defender of the shrine,” the euphemism the Iranian government uses to describe fighters it sends to Syria. Domestic media reported their funerals and memorial services, along with their membership in the Fatemiyoun division and their place of “martyrdom” in Syria.
Domestic media reports also indicate that at least six more “defenders of the shrine” from the Fatemiyoun division are buried across the country and were under the age of 18 when they died. In two of these cases – Hassan Rahimi and Mohammad Zaman Atayi – information engraved on their tombstones indicated that the two were over 18 when they died, but media interviews with their families reveal that they were actually both children, or under 18, when they died fighting in Syria.
For instance, Isa Rahimi, the father of deceased Afghan child soldier Hassan Rahimi, told Iran’s Quran News Agency in November 2016, “On his tomb, his birthday is printed as 1995, but his real birthday is 1999. He had lied about his age so they would allow him to join the forces easier. They hadn’t asked him for a birth certificate, and that’s how he got away with it.”
Afghan fighters have also said they have seen children in training camps for Afghan forces. “Ali,” a 29-year-old Afghan, told Human Rights Watch in August that he talked to 16 and 17-year-old child soldiers who were being trained to fight in Syria. Ali said he joined the Fatemiyoun division after a recruiter approached him while he was trying to renew his residency permit at the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA) office in a city outside Tehran. He said the recruiter told him he could get his permit if he joined up.
“They never asked me to show any documentation, but they wanted to make sure we were Afghan nationals,” Ali told Human Rights Watch. “We had to be above the age 18 to be recruited, but they only asked for our age, not any documentation.”
There is little transparency in Iran’s recruitment of soldiers to fight in Syria, including whether it has implemented measures to prevent child recruitment. On January 27, 2016, Mohsen Kazemeini, commander of the Tehran-based Mohammad Rasoul Allah division of the IRGC, said in a media interview that Basij paramilitary branches affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards are in charge of recruiting forces to fight in Syria. While Iran officially claims that all Afghans living in Iran who join the Fatemiyoun division are volunteers, the vulnerable legal position of many Afghan children living in Iran and their fear of being deported to Afghanistan may contribute to their decision to join up.
Authorities have attempted to extend rights to Afghan children living in Iran. In 2015, Iran reportedly allowed all Afghan children, including undocumented ones, to register for schools after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a ruling emphasizing that “no Afghan child, even the undocumented ones, should be left out of school.” Yet, this research demonstrates authorities have done too little to protect Afghan children from being recruited to fight in Syria, particularly in light of the fact that the government has proposed offering incentives such as a path to citizenship for families of foreign fighters who die, become injured, or are taken captive during “military missions.” These incentives without sufficient protections could increase the risk of child recruitment; as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Executive Committee has emphasized, “refugee children and adolescents… are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by government armed forces…” and has called upon governments to implement policies to prevent this human rights violation.
Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, “conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities” is a war crime. Iran is not a party to the Rome Statute, but is bound by customary international law which also provides that recruitment of children under age 15 is a war crime.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict that entered into force on February 12, 2002, provides that 18 is the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities. Iran has signed the Optional Protocol, but the parliament has yet to vote on its ratification. Human Rights Watch has previously documented the use of child soldiers in the Syrian conflict by the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) – the Kurdish Democratic Union Party affiliate.
The UN should investigate child recruitment by the IRGC, and the secretary-general should consider adding the organization to his annual list of perpetrators of violations against children based on evidence of child recruitment, Human Rights Watch said.
“Iran should be improving protections for Afghan refugee children, not leaving them vulnerable to unscrupulous recruiting agents,” Whitson said. “Iran should immediately ratify the Optional Protocol and ensure that Afghan children are not being recruited to fight in Syria.”
Published on HRW on October 1, 2017.
By Valerie Plesch and Naila Inayat
In the bustling border town of Peshawar, Pakistan, the lines form early these days at this government office that processes residence permits.
That's because Afghan refugees now live in constant fear of officials separating them from their loved ones or deporting them to their war-torn native country that many no longer consider home.
“The government of Pakistan has already deported my husband and my eldest son to Afghanistan,” said Afghan refugee Laiba Zeb, 27, who waited in line for hours at the registration office with her other remaining children.
Zeb was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan. She’s never set foot in Afghanistan. And like many others waiting here, she doesn't want to go to her so-called home.
Last summer, Pakistan announced that more than 3 million Afghan refugees — some in the country since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 — needed to go home.
Since then, about 600,000 registered and undocumented Afghans refugees have been repatriated to an unstable nation where there are currently more than a million internally displaced Afghans. Rights groups and aid organizations have criticized Pakistan’s decision. Human Rights Watch has reported that the supposedly “voluntary” repatriation process is coercive and violates international law. The United Nations refugee agency warned that the mass forced return of Afghans could “develop into a major humanitarian crisis.”
More than 2 million registered and undocumented Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan, and Pakistan officials argue it’s become too expensive and too risky for them to stay.
“In recent terrorist attacks in Peshawar and Lahore, it has been established that Afghan refugees have been used as facilitators,” said Interior Minister of Pakistan Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan at an Islamabad press conference late last month. “The Pakistani nation has been hosting Afghan refugees for the last 30 years and has looked after them despite its own problems.”
Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan have long crisscrossed the porous, mountainous frontier between the two countries to elude authorities. Pakistan has begun constructing fences along parts of the border and plans other measures to prevent illegal crossings. This month, the Pakistani government reopened the border with Afghanistan after sealing it last month following Taliban bombing attacks in the southern Pakistani city of Sehwan and other Pakistani cities.
Afghan refugees crossing the border face a grim future back in Afghanistan. Security has deteriorated amid the rise of ISIS in the country’s east and the increasing gains of the Taliban around the country. Meanwhile, unemployment stands at 40 percent.
“Many of them return to unemployment and destitution,” said Ahmad Shuja, an Afghan political analyst. “Many of the returnees become internally displaced because they cannot return to areas they left originally. This means that opportunities for education, reskilling and employment are extremely limited, as are any form of shelter and social or city services.”
For many younger refugees, especially those like Zeb who have never lived in Afghanistan, the adjustment is especially challenging. Some need to learn a new language, and many mourn leaving behind the lives they built in Pakistan — the only ones they know.
“Why are we being forced to leave the country where we were born, our kids were born?” Zeb asked. “Life will be complicated for us in Afghanistan. My husband had a decent electronics business here in Peshawar. Now we are unsure of our future in that country. No one cares about our ordeal.”
Ehsan Ullah, 28, is one of the luckier ones. Born and college-educated in Pakistan, he moved to Kabul with his family in September — the day after his father was released from jail after the Pakistani police seized him from a local mosque, detained him for one day, never explained the arrest and failed to inform his family.
"We were comfortable in Pakistan but the Pakistan government did not allow us to spend our lives any further in Pakistan, so that's why we came back," Ullah said. "I was born in Pakistan, [our family] spent 35 years in Pakistan. But it was becoming really uncertain for us ... my life was [becoming] worse than a refugee's life. So after giving 35 years and not being able to get identity papers and having the police create problem for us — this was really painful for us — so that's why on the very next day we came back. When we crossed the border, I felt so relaxed, for the first time in my life."
Because Ullah speaks English, he landed a teaching job at a private university in Kabul and a management position at a government-run bank. Though he must improve his Dari — one of Afghanistan’s two official languages — he feels fortunate.
"The Afghan refugees are really in a painful situation in Pakistan,” he said. “They don't have a chance. If they go back to Afghanistan, they don't have jobs. I am educated so that's why I got a job. Not everyone is educated.”
In Kabul, the Afghan government and aid organizations are working hard to reintegrate refugees but face a huge challenge, said Laurence Hart, who leads the UN’s International Organization for Migration in Afghanistan.
"We have to be careful not just to look at now, not just the flow of people coming back,” Hart said, “but how their host communities will actually manage to reintegrate and how to support them and also entice them to work with these returnees.”
On the eastern outskirts of Kabul, makeshift camps occupied by recently returned Afghan refugees from Pakistan have sprouted up beside the highway to Jalalabad to the east. The Afghan government doesn’t have the resources to accommodate them.
“It is something unexpected and, obviously if it's unexpected, the government, even the international organizations, are not ready,” said Edris Lutfi, who oversees refugees for Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah. “They are trying to do everything with the resources, although limited, that they have.”
Many families in the settlement live in mud homes. Schools are nonexistent. Men usually earn a few dollars a week working in temporary manual labor — a big change from their lives in Pakistan where many ran successful small shops and other businesses.
Mohammad Rasul, in his early 60s, lives in the settlement. After living in Abbottabad in northeastern Pakistan for 25 years, he and his family returned around five months ago.
“We left Pakistan because the police and army were harassing and insulting us constantly,” said Rasul. “They were asking for money — if you didn’t give it to them, then they would forcefully put us in the jail. Then we had no option but to bribe them in order to get out of the jail.”
Pakistani police regularly raided his house at night.
“We would show them our refugees cards but they would not accept them, saying ‘We don’t recognize these cards, the cards are expired, you guys should leave Pakistan and go to your own country,’” Rasul recounted.
Back in Pakistan, Khadim Khan, a 22-year-old Afghan engineering student at the University of Engineering and Technology in Peshawar, is bitter about the situation.
“Suddenly the Pakistanis are calling the refugees terrorists, after carrying on the policy of ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’ now they have coined terms of ‘good Afghan’ and ‘bad Afghan,’” he said.
"Which terrorist activity have we the Afghan refugees been involved in? Has any refugee ever carried out a suicide attack?" he asked. “We are only paying the price of Pakistan’s own botched policies. It cannot curb extremism and the deportation is only being used as tool to settle issues with Afghanistan. There is no difference between Trump and the Pakistanis, in fact what they are doing to us is worse than [what] Trump [is doing].”
Pakistani law student Muhammad Hasnain, 23, says he’s uncomfortable with the Afghans in his country.
“The government is justified in its actions against the Afghan refugees,” said Hasnain, who lives in Islamabad. “The country has suffered a lot at their hands. We should send them back where they belong. In every country there are laws. Would anyone without proper documentation be allowed to stay in America?”
It's that sentiment from their neighbors that some Afghans say hurts the most.
Ullah, the private school teacher in Kabul, says that while he is sad to have left Pakistan, he is somewhat happy to be in Afghanistan. He does not want to be considered an Afghan refugee anymore.
"I consider myself as an Afghan citizen,” he said. "I don't want people to call me an Afghan refugee, I want people to call me Afghan … I am Afghan and I am proud to be Afghan. And I want to serve my country. We are rebuilding our country."
Published on PRI's website on March 30, 2017.